150 years later, Dixon bridge tragedy among nation's worst

·5-min read

DIXON, Ill. (AP) — Gertie Wadsworth was in the arms of her grandmother that bright day when sunshine dissolved distasteful memories of a long, brutal winter. Christan Goble held the 3 1/2-year-old girl in a crowd of more than 200 on the bridge over the Rock River. After a procession down Galena Avenue from the Baptist Church on May 4, 1873, the Rev. J.H. Pratt began baptizing parishioners in the brisk, rapid current.

Then, with a sharp crack and a crescendo of shrieking spectators loaded on the pedestrian walkway in front of towering trusses, the 4-year-old bridge twisted, splintered and rolled over. Forty-six people perished, many immured by the unrelenting gridiron just below the water's surface. Along with 56 injuries, the Truesdell bridge tragedy, 150 years ago Thursday, remains the worst vehicular-bridge disaster in American history.

“It's not as though the bridge just collapsed and went straight down,” says Tom Wadsworth, 70, a retired magazine editor and expert on the calamity. "It turns over on top of these people. ... As the (Chicago) Tribune said, the truss ‘fell over with the weight and imprisoned the doomed in an iron cage with which they sunk and from which there was no escape.’”

Wadsworth wouldn't be telling the story had Gertie Wadsworth, his great-grandmother, not survived. Family lore holds that as Goble, 51, plunged to her death, she tossed the toddler into the river beyond the reach of the failing superstructure. The tot was rescued downstream.

Post-Civil War Dixon, 103 miles (166 kilometers) west of Chicago, was a growing city split by the formidable Rock River, a tributary of the Mississippi on which, a few miles north and a half-century later, a young Ronald Reagan would work as a lifeguard after the future president's family moved to Dixon in 1920.

For decades, wooden bridges had succumbed to raging floods. Fed-up voters in 1868 demanded an iron bridge. The city council chose Lucius Truesdell's design from 14 proposals despite the city engineer's warnings about its lack of uniformity and strength.

The $75,000 toll bridge opened in January 1869 to great fanfare, even though — just weeks earlier — a Truesdell bridge in Elgin had collapsed. It was repaired and failed again six months later. The Truesdell design carried traffic in other Illinois cities, including Chicago.

Newspapers post-disaster dubbed Dixon's span “The Truesdell Trap” and “The Patent Wholesale Drowning Machine." It was shocking how the ironwork had slammed atop victims like a gate.

“You could look down and see their faces. They couldn’t get to the surface because all that iron was on top of them," Wadsworth said. "It’s frightening to look down, but to look up and to see daylight, to be only 12 inches (30 centimeters) from air?”

The location of the May 4 crowd, clumped on the west walkway, helps explain why four of five fatalities were women, along with many children and teenagers. Chivalrous men surrendered prime bridge viewing spots to women and girls and stepped to the bank, Wadsworth said. Boys climbed atop the trusses.

But contemporary women’s fashion might also be to blame, Wadsworth theorizes. The 1870s ushered in a heavy, layered bustle at the rear of floor-length dresses supported underneath by a crinolette, a series of fabric-covered metal half-hoops.

“You’re not going to win any Olympic swimming races wearing one of these things,” Wadsworth said.

Drowning, referred to in news reports as “strangulation,” took many. Others met an even more gruesome demise. The crisscrossed iron in the latticework pivoted like shears, slicing into victims such as 16-year-old Katie Sterling, who was so entangled it took two days to cut her free.

Several bodies were recovered miles away. Lizzie Mackey, 17, was recovered at Sterling, 14 miles (23 kilometers) downstream. The youngest victims were sisters Alphea and Lucia Hendrix, ages 6 and 4, according to Patrick Gorman, another student of the tragedy who helped raise money in 2011 for a marker listing the names of the fatalities.

A new memorial will be dedicated at the site on Sunday, May 7.

Pratt was wracked by guilt, admitting he had detained the crowd longer than necessary to extol the benefits of “coming to Jesus.” But he was a hero that day.

“He started grabbing them by the hair and by the shoulder and by the pants,” Wadsworth said. “He knew what the riverbed was like. He’d walked out there many times for baptism ceremonies, so he knew how far he could get and grab people and he got 10 or 15 himself.”

A century-and-a-half later, Truesdell's casualties keep it atop the worst failures of vehicular bridges in American history. The foundering of the Silver Bridge over the Ohio River from Ohio to West Virginia in 1967 also claimed 46 lives but there were nine injuries compared with 56 in Dixon.

The horrific 1981 collapse of a Kansas City hotel's pedestrian walkways resulted in 114 deaths, the most of any crumbled span in U.S. history.

Separating it from the Truesdell affair are four railroad bridge incidents, including another in Illinois. In 1887, a trestle dropped from under a train at Chatsworth, 103 miles (166 kilometers) southwest of Chicago, killing 82 passengers as cars were flung into one another like a telescope as they slammed the opposite embankment.

Like he had done in the Elgin collapse, Truesdell blamed sabotage for the Dixon failure. In a letter to a newspaper in Massachusetts, where he lived, he defended himself feebly:

“It is nearly 18 years since I began building iron bridges, and the Elgin and Dixon bridges are the only ones that have fallen, and no loss of life except at Dixon. Can as much be said of any other plan?”

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